Monday, 8 December 2003
Lessig highlights Bush's depublishing — but misses the real story
Here is a new entry for the annals of "depublishing" — the practice of removing or altering electronic articles after publication. (For background, see Greg Ritter's now-classic blog post on Dave Winer's depublishing in Scripting News, "The Ethics of De-Publishing.") This time, depublishing has lived up to its Orwellian promise, as political activists and the media have swallowed the altered version of history.
On May 1, 2003, the Whitehouse's Office of the Press Secretary released this press release, announcing "President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended." But then, with airbrush magic, now the same press release has been changed to this, which reports "President Bush Announces Major Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended." No update on the page, no indication of when the change occurred, indeed, no indication that any change occurred at all. Instead, there is robots.txt file disallowing all sorts of activities that might verify the government. (Why does any government agency believe it has the power to post a robots.txt file?)The rub, of course, is in the word major. The original press release implies that combat operations are, well, ended. The silently doctored version makes the President seem better acquainted with the situation and prescient. The motives behind this are as old as politics itself, so the only thing that would seem to be new is the technology. However, something deeper is going on here.
The mainstream press, and even some Bush bashers, have swallowed the altered version of history. A Google News search for "major combat operations" & Iraq yields over 1,100 hits. Keep in mind that Google News indexes only mainstream sources, that its index only lasts a week or two, and that a comprehensive Lexis-Nexis search would probably yield tens or hundreds of thousands of hits. Here is a sampling of the first few Google hits. Note how each one treats the depublished ("afterpublished," really) word major as an historical fact: